#AWP19 Featured Presenter Q&A with Max Wolf Valerio
AWP | January 2019
Event Title: Coloring Outside the Gender Binary: How Transgender Poets are Redefining What It Means to Be Human, Sponsored by AWP
Description: Until very recently, the English language, and most of the poetry written in it, has been based on the gender binary assumption that all human beings are always, either, and only male or female, as determined by the sex of their bodies at birth. We see this assumption at work in the traditional system of gendered pronouns and honorifics, in words for our most intimate roles and relationships, which designate parents as mothers or fathers, children as daughters or sons, and so on, and in subtler habits that reflect and reinforce the idea that human beings are born and remain simply male or female.
Participants: Max Wolf Valerio, Ching-In Chen, Joy Ladin, Cameron Awkward-Rich
Location: Oregon Ballroom 201-202, Oregon Convention Center, Level 2
Date & Time: Saturday, March 30, 1:30 p.m. to 2:45 p.m.
What are some of the conference events or bookfair exhibitors you look forward to seeing at AWP?
The bookfair is always a favorite. I get lost and wander aimlessly yet my radar is always up. The surprises are the best: the unexpected vendor that pulls you in with a book you’ve never seen or even imagined could exist. I try not to overspend, but what can you do. Specifically, I look forward to Nightboat books for my leading edge poetry fix, and of course Small Press Distribution and EOAGH Books. I always am intrigued by what Re/Search is publishing. As for events, Erica Jong in conversation with Lidia Yuknavitch and Raymond Luczak has my attention. I enjoyed Jong’s book on Henry Miller, The Devil at Large, many years ago, so I’m curious where she’s at now. As for the rest of the conference, I’ll be cruising around searching for panels on surrealism, Bob Dylan, hybrid poetic forms, bizarro fiction, essay writing, language poetry and post-language poetry, noir, and visionary writers.
If you’ve been to an AWP before, what is your favorite conference memory?
I wandered into a panel on crime writing—true crime, noir, hardboiled—and was overjoyed to hear swearing, blunt and forceful speech, no-nonsense direct language, and a generally intense, even inflamed atmosphere. I contrast this to panels where people appear to be treading carefully not to offend. It occurred to me that possibly I had missed a calling. I am interested in exploring this type of writing at some point and seeing where it leads me. At any rate, that was a find. Also, the mega poetry reading put on in Boston in 2012 to celebrate the first printing of Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (Nightboat Books). There were so many amazing poets reading their work, such a range of voices and a feeling of excitement and discovery in the air. I made new friends. The reading was a truly historic event.
What book or books that you’ve read over the last year would you most highly recommend?
I am always reading j/j hastain’s hybrid poetry/prose/cross-genre work. She’s extremely prolific and so there’s a lot to choose from. Luci: a Forbidden Soteriology and Graphomania surprise and captivate with deeply imaginative encounters with both a female Lucifer (Luci) and tantric rituals re-envisioned as queer transformations. Hastain is funny also, sensuous and sexy and endlessly inventive—you really travel to another dimension as you read. Also, Down in the River by Ryan Blacketter grabbed my attention; it’s an intense and disturbing tale of adolescents, graveyards, madness, and family dysfunction. I have to recommend the classic memoir by Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, To Build a Castle, reissued as a Kindle book by Dissent Books. Bukovsky spent twelve years in Soviet prisons and mental hospitals for political dissidence—initially he was arrested for organizing a poetry reading. His story illuminates moral courage and conviction in a world gone insane. Finally, I’d recommend a new writer who is as yet unpublished but who self-publishes a series of chapbooks that he designs himself and sells in bookstores here in Portland or by special order: Travis Neal Todd. With titles like Charismatic Mammals Hallelujah Under Moonlight, these sharp, observant, and extremely funny short books are picaresque masterpieces full of droll observation and humor. Read them now and you can claim that you helped to discover him. I’m also reading The Importance of Being Iceland by Eileen Myles, and now I really want to visit.
Has public funding for the arts made a difference in your life and career as a writer?
I’ve gotten grants from the San Francisco Arts Commission that have helped me bring my work to deeper and stronger places. In fact, some of my work would not exist without those funds. So, there’s no question that public funding can give a writer time, and a launching pad for new work. And of course, it’s all about TIME! Having funding helps take that pressure off of making a living so you can focus. I think there are many ways to fund writing projects and while it is not the only way, public funding is one source that poets and writers need to always consider. That said, do not depend on any one source, keep inventing, and be independent. Don’t allow your work to be dictated by the real or imagined values of any government source or grant-funding board, but don’t ignore potential funding sources either. Find the ones that are right for your voice(s), and apply.
If you could run into any author, contemporary or historical, at #AWP19, who would it be and what would you talk about?
I think I would love to talk to Henry Miller about testosterone and masculinity. My own memoir, The Testosterone Files, had passages that are euphoric and extremely detailed descriptions of my perceptions and body changing on testosterone, as I transitioned from female to male. I approached transition with a sense of adventure and as a transformative journey that expanded consciousness. His work always had that sense of exuberance and expansion, and he obviously loved writing about sex—so I would be interested in his take.
Of course Rimbaud would be amazing to meet, though I would probably be extremely intimidated and only want to gaze at him from afar. Just seeing him would be amazing. On the other hand, I would probably want to talk poetry and visions, and see if he still believes poets must become seers. And if so, how does a poet disorder their senses and find spaciousness and inspiration in spite of the claustrophobia of call-out culture and social media mobs? Possibly, going into the desert again, as he did, is always the best answer. Or creating a desert internally as a source of the poem, creating a vast and quiet place where possibility is a corrective and a purgative.
If you’ve been to Portland before, what places do you recommend that our attendees should visit?
Go to Powell’s Books and check out Travis Neal Todd’s chapbooks. He’s a local find as I say above.
Max Wolf Valerio is an iconoclastic poet and writer, and a long-transitioned man of transsexual history. Max is an amalgam of many perspectives and passages but first, an individual. Essays have included pre-transition work in the anthology This Bridge Called My Back, and post-transition essays in This Bridge We Call Home and The Right Side of History: 100 Years of LGBTQ Activism. A poetry chapbook, Animal Magnetism, appeared in 1984. Recent poetry includes “Exile: Vision Quest at the Edge of Identity,” a long poem set to ambient music and excerpted in Yellow Medicine Review and made possible by a Native American Arts and Cultural Traditions Grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission; Mission Mile Trilogy +1, a collaboration with photographer Dana Smith; and poems in the anthology Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics. His memoir, The Testosterone Files, was a Lambda Finalist in 2006. A book of his poetry, The Criminal: The Invisibility of Parallel Forces, is forthcoming in spring 2019 from EOAGH Books.